The Howard League for Penal Reform

Close Brinsford prison

The inspection report on Brinsford prison published today is one of the worst I have ever seen, and the Chief Inspector himself says it has the worst findings he has found.

The prison buildings are in disrepair with broken windows and the wings are filthy. It would cost millions to make the infrastructure safe and fit for purpose.

But more important is the terribly practices revealed by the inspection. Brinsford is a prison near Wolverhampton that holds almost 600 young men aged 18 to 20. Almost half of them are locked up all day and a third get out of their cells for about half an hour a day. The young men are locked up from Friday to Monday. They are held two to a cell designed for one person, with an unscreened toilet, so that if one needs to defecate they have to do it in front of the other.

There were 290 recorded incidents of self-injury in six months, 232 recorded use of force by staff and young men were placed into solitary confinement 403 times which could last for weeks. Punishment is used to try to control the institution and there were 1,470 adjudications in six months with evidence that an informal (and unlawful) system of punishments was being used alongside this.

Young men held in the segregation block were only allowed a shower every three days. Young men are not given enough clothing to last week and can’t get clean clothes.

Putting the lie to the Government claim that prisoners have access to the library to get books, in Brinsford only three were escorted to the library in a week.

Nearly half of the young men sentenced to custody were serving less than six months, some sentenced by magistrates to just a few weeks.

So who is responsible for this dreadful institution and its dire consequences for the young men and the increased crime inflicted on local communities as a result?

Imagine an Ofsted report on school that identified a failing institution, the secretary of state would act to close it down. So the buck stops with the secretary of state. It is not good enough to say that a new governor has been put in place, this prison is failing on every count and would require a huge investment of capital funding to repair and replace buildings as well as extra highly trained staff.

Magistrates must bear responsibility too for continuing to send young men to a place like this. They know it is failing and causing more crime and they know that the local probation service can manage these young men more effectively so reducing crime and protecting victims.

I am calling for the prison to be closed down. It is irredeemable. The report indicates that many staff are doing their best in impossible circumstances and their commitment and skills could be redeployed into the community. The secretary of state should take action to reduce crime, save public money and protect victims.

April 23, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy, Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons

A damning report on Feltham

The independent monitoring board report on Feltham prison is pretty damning. Feltham holds 620 boys and young adults and had been so violent that the teenagers who were held on remand awaiting trial were to be taken out to relieve the pressure, except this does not seem to have happened. These teenagers were destined to be shipped out to adult jails across London, putting 18 and 19 year olds into cells with adults in prisons like Pentonville and Wandsworth. The government intended to move all young men aged 18 and above into adult jails but this was put on hold after the suicides of several young men. Feltham still holds a mix of children aged from 15 up to young adults of 21.

The problems highlighted by the monitoring board include continuing violence, lack of staff, untrained staff, nothing to do all day, dreadful education provision and poor relationships with staff. It could hardly be worse.

Feltham is located next to Heathrow airport where people are paid more to handle baggage than the prison officers, so it is hardly any surprise that the prison cannot recruit and is constantly understaffed. The report says that the prison is on average 30 officers short every month.

The staff inside Feltham are barely trained and don’t even have to have a GCSE, yet they are asked to do a complex and demanding job dealing with some very needy teenagers, many of whom have learning difficulties and mental health problems. The allocation of education is a shambles with one boy serving a long sentence put in a business studies class with a worksheet to explain how he was going to set up his own business.

Education is mandatory for the boys aged 15 to 17 but is only provided five half-days a week. The quality of provision has been so poor the boys are not engaged.

The officers use violent restraint, segregation and punishment hearings disproportionately on young black and minority boys, triggering resentment and perceived racism.

About 35 boys a month are recognised as being suicidal and given additional protection.

Children were placed in solitary confinement 467 times last year and young adults were held in solitary 569 times. This means being held in a bare cell for days on end with little or no interaction or activity – something that would be unlawful if a parent did it to a child.

When children and young men do try to complain they are ignored.

Feltham was rebuilt 25 years ago using modern American designs, and government argued at the time that this would be a state-of-the-art answer to young people’s offending. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what the government is now arguing it is going to build with its “secure colleges” which will inevitably go the same way, down and dangerous.

This report is damning and should be read by every youth court magistrate who even contemplates sending a boy to Feltham. Nothing could be worse or more dangerous.

April 11, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Prisons

Dead budgies and prison rules

Chris Grayling is really getting down and dirty with the detail of prisoners’ lives as the new rules he has introduced stipulate that you can have an alive budgie but not a dead one. Prisoners have been getting in touch to tell us that the time on the phone to families has been cut to 10 minutes when the phone just goes dead.

The ban on sending in books and other essentials has received massive publicity and generated public opprobrium because of the Howard League campaign. The support of the country’s top writers for our campaign has gone alongside criticism from experts like HM chief inspector of prisons who slammed the secretary of state for justice’s propensity to micromanage prisons.

The 66 page Incentives and Earned Privileges instruction from the National Offender Management Service covers every detail of prison life and is bureaucracy gone bonkers.  Prison governors and staff will have to scour the details to ensure that the rules are being applied. They also have to refer to the links with other 22 other voluminous instructions documents which all have to be read together and cross referenced. It won’t leave them much time for doing any real work.

The instructions apply to both public sector and private prisons, even though prisons like the newly privatised Northumberland jail has just divested itself of 200 staff. How the few remaining staff, who had to deal with a major disturbance at the weekend, will find the time to search for dead budgies is a mystery.

Governors are clearly being forced to take these rules very seriously as it was a governor who raised with me his concern about the dead budgies. He was furious at the micro management of prisons emanating from the top of the Ministry of Justice that is tying senior staff into bureaucratic knots.

The new restrictions go alongside staff cuts that impede family contact and, as we know, access to libraries and learning through reading.

The regime introduced by the new ministerial team is in stark contrast to that of the first couple of years of the Coalition government when the emphasis was on work and activity. Now there is shut down, nothing goes in and nothing happens within. It is no coincidence that there have been riots every few days, and things will get worse.

April 4, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Inside prisons, Prisons

Playing games with the truth

I don’t mind having a genuine disagreement about policy issues with ministers, but when they play games with the truth I get very cross.

The Howard League and Prisoners Advice Service sought permission for a judicial review to challenge the cuts to legal aid for prisoners. This is serious stuff and affects the lives of some highly vulnerable people and our two charities have a right to question the legality and probity of the decision. I won’t go into the legal arguments here because we have set out our case already.

What has annoyed me is the comment from the minister for legal aid, Shailesh Vara. He said to the Press Association:  “Legal aid should be used for addressing genuine injustices – not as an issue for campaigning by pressure groups or for minor complaints from prisoners that can be fairly dealt with by other means. We welcome this judgment, which rejects the notion these changes are unfair or unlawful. It is regrettable we had to spend more taxpayers’ money making these points in court.”

A pregnant woman sent to prison on remand for shoplifting food for her children will no longer get legal aid to fight the decision to separate her from her baby as soon as it is born. I don’t think, Mr Minister, that this is a minor complaint.

A child facing destitution on release from prison will no longer get legal aid to challenge the failure of the local authority to find him a roof over his head and a few pennies for food. Mr Minister, that’s not a minor complaint.

Pressure groups and charities have challenged central and local government decision making across a wide range of policies and sometimes the courts find they have just cause, and sometimes the courts find against them. Testing government decisions makes this country a democracy. Mr Minister, do you want a country that does not support the citizen to challenge the state?

Furthermore, it is simply not true that any taxpayers’ money has been spent by the government on this case. As the charities lost, we are liable for the costs. But perhaps the Minister doesn’t know how the law works.

We have, it is true, decided to appeal, but that will cost nothing more to either side as the appeal will be decided by a judge on the paperwork with no court hearing. If we are granted permission and if we win the case, it is true that the taxpayer will bear the cost, but if we lose, the charities bear the full cost. And, whilst it is a significant sum for charities, it is paltry in government terms.

All this from the Legal Aid minister who tried to claim £1,500 on his expenses for costs incurred before he was elected.


March 20, 2014 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized

U R Boss young advisors

We are undergoing a thorough evaluation of U R Boss, the charity’s project working with young people who have been involved in the criminal justice system. We have provided an enhanced legal service to hundreds of children and young adults, most, but not all of whom had been in custody. For me, the most exciting part of the project was to sit alongside some of them at our fringe meetings at the party conferences when they spoke truth to power.

If you haven’t been to a political party conference it is hard to imagine just what they are like and how daunting it can be to speak at fringe meetings. Last year the Labour conference had about 15,000 people attending, including elected representatives and journalists and a wide range of visitors. Conservative conference had about 10,000 and the LibDems had some 4,000. Within the secure zone, government ministers and high profile media people wander around and attend meetings, so they are easy to grab for a chat.

So these are high-pressure events with people who make decisions about our lives. It is not often that young people who have been in prison get to attend, never mind speak.

We hosted fringe meetings at the three main conferences and our young advisors spoke on platforms with ministers, shadow ministers, senior MPs and PCCs.

In the audience there were leaders of councils with multi-billion pound budgets, MPs, senior police, councillors, MEPs, school governors, journalists and people from voluntary groups. Each of the young advisors gave a speech, they made jokes, argued with and contradicted ministers, and all in a public forum.

Our staff had helped the young people to rehearse their speeches and hone their skills at making strong points in a challenging environment. It was wonderful to behold; they were fearless and funny, articulate and thoughtful and they made strong points about not just listening to young people but working in partnership to achieve a better system.

The young advisors spent several days at the conferences and learnt about power, structure, democracy and how things work. They talked informally and socially to all sorts of people.

It is the kind of experience that very few people have the chance to get and is life changing. It is also inter-generationally life changing in that they will tell their children about it and pass on their knowledge about how politics work.

They were affected by this, they flourished. It proves that everyone can participate in the democratic process given the right sort of support.

The people who heard them were affected too and will remember the messages.

It is a huge thing. And I was proud of them and proud to be part of it.

March 18, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Howard League, U R Boss

Filming with Ann Widdecombe for The One Show

I spent yesterday with Ann Widdecombe. We were filming for The One Show, a BBC One programme, a short piece about women in the penal system and I was trying to convince her that fewer women should be sent to prison and that the successful women’s centres should be supported instead.

We made the film in ISIS, a women’s centre in Gloucester that won one of the Howard League’s awards for successful community programmes. There are now 51 women’s centres across the country delivering a wide range of services but all of them are part-funded by probation to provide community sentences. Importantly, what makes the women’s centres work so well is that they also provide all sorts of other support to the women including cookery classes, healthy living, help into employment, drug and alcohol support, debt counselling, crèche facilities, reading groups and so much more. This means that the women sent to the centre by the courts benefit from a great deal of additional support and often long after the sentence has ended.

ISIS was set up by a charity, the Nelson Trust, and runs on a shoestring budget of a few hundred thousand pounds. It costs a couple of hundred pounds to deliver a community sentence, in stark contrast to the cost of imprisonment which is ten times more. It has an almost 90% success rate at preventing further offending. Whereas almost half of the women on short prison sentences reoffend.

Last Friday we helped to organise an open day for the award winning Willowdene Farm, a working farm that has a residential unit for women funded by West Mercia Probation. The farm engenders a work ethos alongside therapy with women who are at the highest risk of reoffending, often with 11 or more previous convictions.

Tomorrow the Howard League is helping to organise an open day at Anawim, a women’s centre in Birmingham. The centre works with complicated women who have been given a Specified Activity Order by the court. In the last year it has worked with more than 200 women with a reoffending rate of under 1%.

This catalogue of success contrasts starkly with the failure of women’s prisons that are awash with the blood of self-injury, where another woman hanged herself a couple of weeks ago, where babies and young children are forcibly separated from mothers, where drugs and victimisation is what waits for the women on release.

The government has set aside funding for these centres for this year, but with the dismantling of probation there is no assurance that they will continue. The line from government at the moment is that the companies taking over probation will have to “show how they are going to meet the needs of women offenders”. This means nothing.

I had hoped to convince Ann that we should close the prisons and more women’s centres should be set up, but it was not to be. You will have to watch the television programme to see her arguments.

March 4, 2014 · Frances Crook · 4 Comments
Posted in: Community progrmmes, Women in custody, Women in the penal system

Child deaths in custody

Any child’s death is a sad event, but a child dying in the custody of the state is scandalous. The state has ultimate power, and ultimate responsibility, when it takes a person into custody. A child should never die in these circumstances. So it is incredible that sixteen children have died in custody since the founding of the Youth Justice Board. Today the YJB published a report into these deaths. I am taken aback by how shamefully superficial and self-justifying it is.

The report only considers matters raised by other bodies, each of which have very limited remits so the YJB has ignored whole areas of its responsibility.

The YJB is the only authority that could have looked more widely at why these children died, not just at how. It has a great deal of responsibility for the youth offending teams who manage children when they first come into contact with the criminal justice system and who prepare reports for the courts to guide sentencing.

This is critically important as most of the boys were remanded to custody, not sentenced, and almost all the sentenced boys were serving short sentences.

The YJB should have looked at the lead up to custody and what could have been done to prevent the boys entering such a dangerous environment. Prisons and privately run secure training centres are violent places, bullying and restraint is rampant.

Why did the report not ask the youth offending teams to account for why they did not work more closely with children’s services and social services to support the families and turn the children’s lives round? Also published today is an investigation by the BBC and Community Care magazine about the lack of services for children with serious mental health problems, which most of the boys who died in penal custody were known to have suffered from. The question should have been asked why these boys were not diverted to mental health care by youth offending teams.

Why did the report not look at the advice and recommendations given to the youth courts?

No one has ever examined the decisions of the courts who sent these children to places that clearly were dangerous. The YJB is arguably the only body that could have questioned the decision by the courts to incarcerate highly vulnerable children in prisons and STCs that are well known to be violent and dangerous. One of the boys who died was sent to custody because he breached conditions placed on him in the community – how on earth can a court justify such a decision and who is going to question the magistrates if not the YJB? Inquests can’t do it, local authorities can’t do it, the Magistrates Association won’t, and the Ministry of Justice won’t even consider it.

This was a terribly wasted opportunity and real learning would have saved more lives. As it is, the report is so flimsy that mere tinkering appears to be all that is on offer. Meanwhile, children will continue to be sent to the guillotine.

February 20, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Children and young people

Criminal Justice and Courts Bill and restraint

Yesterday I attended the Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody. This body is chaired by ministers from justice, health and policing and it comprises the chief inspectors and executives from NHS, prisons, probation and police, to consider how to reduce suicides, murders and natural deaths in all forms of custody. The Board has been particularly concerned at restraint related deaths, including children.

So I took the opportunity of saying how pleased I was that the minister for justice, Mr Jeremy Wright, who chaired the meeting, had been quoted in response to our concerns about the so-called secure college in Children and Young People Now, on Thursday 6 February 2014.

“We are clear that restraint should only ever be used against young people as a last resort where it is absolutely necessary to do so and where no other form of intervention is possible or appropriate.

The Bill published today does not contain proposals to allow children to be restrained for ‘good order and discipline’.

No decisions have been made yet on the use of restraint in secure colleges.”

Now, the Howard League holds that restraining children for not doing what they are told is dangerous and gives the erroneous lesson that might is right.

The deaths of two children in privately run secure training centres were linked to restraint, one 15 year old boy died whilst being restrained and a 14 year old took his own life just after being restrained.

The courts have made it very clear that children should not be restrained or subject to force for not doing as they are told.

The case of C v Secretary of Justice in 2008 considered the use of restraint on children in secure training centres. The court made it clear that restraint for good order and discipline engages Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that it would be for the Secretary of State to justify the necessity of force. The scenarios put to the court by the private company running the STC consisted of examples where restraint was considered necessary to ensure discipline and a safe custodial environment. These scenarios were not accepted by the court as sufficient to justify the use of force for good order and discipline. It is therefore hard to see under what possible circumstances it could ever be lawful to use force on children for good order.

So it is disappointing, bizarre in fact, to see that in direct contradiction to the assurance given by the minister the Bill does indeed give sweeping powers to staff to use force on children in custody.

Sections 8 and 9 in Schedule 4, part 1 say:

8     A secure college custody officer performing custodial duties at a contracted-out secure college has the following duties in relation to persons detained


(a)  to prevent their escape from lawful custody,

(b)  to prevent, or detect and report on, the commission or attempted commission by them of other unlawful acts,

(c)  to ensure good order and discipline on their part, and

(d)  to attend to their well-being.

9     (1) A secure college custody officer performing custodial duties at a contracted-out secure college may search the following in accordance with secure

college rules—

(a) a person who is detained in the secure college,

(b) any other person who is in the secure college or who is seeking to 20enter the secure college, and

(c) an article in the possession of a person described in paragraph (b).

(2) The power under sub-paragraph (1)(b) does not include power to require a person to submit to an intimate search (within the meaning of section 164(5) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979).

10      If authorised to do so by secure college rules, a secure college custody officer may use reasonable force where necessary in carrying out functions under

paragraph 8 or 9.

The Bill can be read at:

I have written to the minister to ask for clarification as it is unclear how his assertion can be reconciled with the legislation he is proposing.

February 12, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy, Howard League, Prisons, Uncategorized

A Titanic mistake: the case against a super-prison for Wales

Next Thursday, the Howard League and the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University will be hosting an event entitled ‘A Titanic mistake: the case against a super-prison for Wales’.

It is a very important event. Almost daily we receive news about the disaster that is the UK’s current largest prison, G4S run Oakwood. Just today we heard that prisoners threw buckets of slops at prison officers’ faces. The prisoners allege they did so as they were in debt to gang members, who now effectively control the prison, and feared for their safety unless they obeyed orders to assault staff in this way. Oakwood also has very high levels of violence, low levels of education and employment training and is run in such a chaotic fashion that prisoners told inspectors that it was easier to get drugs than soap. All this reminds us how awful giant prisons are. Oakwood is particularly bad, but all very large prisons are more violent and worse at reducing reoffending than small ones. Oakwood has 1,600 places and the proposed super-prison will have more than 2,000.

The proposed titan prison would also be terrible news for Wales. The Ministry of Justice has sold the idea to the Welsh government on the basis that it will bring hundreds of new jobs and lots of extra investment to North Wales, but past experience has shown that new prisons generally create very few jobs for people already living in the local area and have a negative impact on non-criminal justice related investment. If the prison is built it will warehouse thousands of predominantly English prisoners and the Welsh government will be lumbered with an expensive prison for decades, with little or no room to pursue cheaper and more effective criminal justice policies.

There is an opportunity for the people of Wales to do something quite different from the English obsession with incarceration.  Instead of squandering public money on a huge crime warehouse, Wales could show the way by investing in jobs and crime prevention. Local people could lobby for investment in a site in Wrexham that has much potential for industry, commerce and education that would offer real jobs.  It has come to a pretty pass if a place like Wrexham has to celebrate the possibility of jobs in locking up fellow citizens. The town should be fighting for real jobs with skills that pay a decent wage and enhance the local area. Wrexham doesn’t want to be famous in Europe for housing a penal dustbin that will inevitably bring bad publicity when there are disturbances and even deaths. That could blight other possibilities for investment and jobs.

The event will take place on 6 February 2014, from 9.30am to 11.30am at the Pierhead Building, National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff Bay. Academic Robert Jones, who has examined the Wrexham prison proposals in detail, will present his research and panel of politicians and experts will respond, including Elfyn Llwyd MP; Eoin MacLennan Murray, President of the Prison Governors Association; and Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League. The event is free and you can register for a place by sending an email to We hope to see you there.

February 3, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Prisons

Who guards the police?

There has been a great deal of criticism of the IPCC following the Mark Duggan case and the Stevens inquiry set up by the Labour Party has suggested merging it with the inspectorate. However, I think that misses the point and would make things worse.

Complaints systems are, by their nature, cumbersome and unsatisfactory. I can’t think of a single body that deals with complaints that commands much public support. They look into individual cases involving public services when something has gone catastrophically wrong. People start by feeling aggrieved and there is often not much to be done to alleviate that anger.

An independent body that deals with complaints by the public against the police is, I think, unique to this country, and should be abandoned at our peril. Merging it with a larger body whose primary function is something quite different threatens to dilute what influence and authority the IPCC has.

The inspectorate is a body that has not functioned well. It is pedestrian and has a limited vision of its place in guiding policing. Inspection reports are focused primarily on function and management. It does not deal effectively or critically with policy or outcomes. I was surprised to hear Tom Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, say that he does not go on inspections, he goes on visits. If the head of an organisation does not see at first hand what it does, how does he know what it should do?

Since the Inspectorate of Constabulary had to comply with the UN Optional Protocol on the prevention of torture and joined forces with the more sophisticated prisons inspectorate, there have been improvements and the introduction of thematic reviews. The first of these in 2007 looked at police contact centres, while recent thematic reviews have looked at the policing of mental health and stop and search.

There is still a long way to go. I would like to see, for example, a thematic review of the policing of children. But reorganising and merging organisations has a poor record of solving problems. Converging organisations that are not functioning well is unlikely to improve things. Let’s stick with what we have, and focus on making them better.

January 15, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Police